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Reviews: Keep the Light Alive—Celebrating the Music of Lowen and Navarro, and Strawbs, Dancing to the Devil’s Beat and Acoustic Strawbs

It’s folk-rock Wednesday this week at Driftwood. Today we have two great releases from Strawbs, and a compilation of the songs of Lowen and Navarro, two other great names in the world of folk rock. Stunning visuals (grimacing!), monster guitar lines (lutes!), and anthemic rock (for a good cause!) await.

That's a castle in the background. It's real. That's three Strawbs in front. They are unreal. (Click to visit the group's website.)

Acoustic Strawbs
Live at Hampton Court Palace
[Witchwood Media WMDVD 2046 (2009), DVD]

The opening moments of Live at Hampton Court Palace are breathtaking because, well, you’re looking at the front of a palace. You are seeing it looming behind three late middle-aged English guys seated at the front of a massive stage set up for a performance of Rick Wakeman’s Six Wives of Henry VIII. And then it begins to sink in that these are English guys in front of an English palace playing music that is shot through with English folk influences that, when their set crescendos, is not unreminiscent of English chamber music. The continuity and historical coherence is a bit moving.

David Cousins sits center stage garbed in a gold satin shirt and red shoes that match his guitar. David Lambert is at stage left wearing a dark public school jacket with white piping. Chas Cronk is perched at stage right looking like a hip ad exec on holiday in his linen sports jacket. It is pleasant to see that the dandyism that contributed to their fashion sense in the ’70s has not deserted them.

All the songs are drawn from their late ’60s–early ’70s heyday, some from before Cronk’s tenure with the band and only one, “A Glimpse of Heaven,” from Wakeman’s era. Cousins is a careful chronicler of his work, and he seems to order sets with an eye toward both pedagogy and showmanship. “Lay Down,” which opens the set, was released as a single in 1973 and never included on album until 1996 (Halcyon Days). “New World” gives him a chance to take a playful dig at Wakeman; he comments that Grave New World, the first post-Wakeman album, shot to the top of the charts.

The momentum and complexity of the arrangements builds from song to song until “Ghosts” (title track of the 1974 album), which is an eight-plus minute suite of Baroque drama, featuring searing guitar work and lead vocals from Lambert. His muscular playing and grimacing are the most dramatic aspect of the trio’s stage presence.

The interplay among their guitar lines (Cronk alternates between guitar and bass) is flawless. They aren’t going for speed or notes per second, but an anastamosing, usually elegiac grace. Cronk colors the stringwork with atmospheric bass pedal groans that do not intrude.

The package is bulked out with archival photos set to audio tracks and a bonus video of the previous day’s performance of “Oh How She Changed” from 1969. [www.strawbsweb.co.uk]

—Bill Chaisson (Trumansburg, NY)


Dancing to the Devils Beat features great English folk rock and, if the cover is any indication, the promise of sweet, sweet Popsicles.


Strawbs

Dancing to The Devil’s Beat
[Witchwood Media WMCD 2045 (2009)]

Providing music for their own 40th anniversary party, original Strawbs Dave Lambert and David Cousins are joined here by the longstanding rhythm section of bassist Chas Cronk and drummer Rod Coombes (on board since the mid-1970s) and surprising newcomer Oliver Wakeman (son of one-time Strawbs keyboardist Rick Wakeman) on keyboards. In fact, it’s often Wakeman who spearheads the sound, providing driving and full-bodied organ reminiscent of that 70s prog-rock “pompitude.” It’s downright thrilling to hear.

There’s very little that could be tagged “folky” on Dancing. Yes, they redo “Oh How She Changed,” a cut from the band’s first album all those years ago, but while the opening multipart vocal harmonies start out eerily medieval-sounding, the drums and electric guitars kick in soon enough. Overall, even the slower songs display a sense of grandeur and gravity. The prog leanings are addressed on the extended “Pro Patria Suite,” which reflects on war and life in the World War I era. The title cut rocks hard and heavy with a full-on electric sound driven by Wakeman’s swirling organ curlicues and Cousins spitting out the lyrics about greed and corruption in the banking world and elsewhere. There’s even the very British, jazz-tinged whimsy of “The Ballad of Jay and Rose Mary.” Overall, Dancing to the Devil’s Beat marks a wonderful return to form from these 60-something, 60s-era stalwarts. [www.strawbsweb.co.uk]

—Jeffery R. Lindholm (Montpelier, VT)

Many friendly voices to fight ALS.

Various Artists
Keep the Light Alive – Celebrating the Music of Lowen & Navarro
[AIX CD 81008 (2009)]

In the 1980s and 1990s, the anthemic folk-rock of Eric Lowen and Dan Navarro was a mainstay of rock radio. Lowen was diagnosed with ALS in 2004, and had to quit performing in 2009. Keep the Light Alive is a tribute album comprising Lowen and Navarro tunes covered by an impressive roster of friends and colleagues including Jackson Browne (“The Weight of the World”), Keb’ Mo’ (“If You Loved Me Like That”), and John Ondrasik of Five for Fighting, who covers the title tune. The tribute is also a showcase for some extremely talented friends who aren’t necessarily household words, such as Browne’s brother Severin, who provides a rousing, Memphis style arrangement of “Open Your Heart,” long time Lowen and Navarro sideman Phil Parlapiano’s stirring reading of “The Opposite of Everything,” and Stonehoney’s soulful acoustic take on “If I Was the Rain.” The folk community is well represented by contributions from Joel Rafael (“Old Riverside”), Eddie from Ohio (“Just to See You”), and the Refugees (“Compass Point”). “We Belong,” which was originally a hit for Pat Benatar, is revived in powerful style by the Bangles. There isn’t a weak cut on Keep the Light Alive, which is a tribute to both the timeless songs that Lowen and Navarro contributed and the supportive community of musicians who contributed to this fine effort.

Proceeds from the CD go to the Eric Lowen Trust, ALSA LA, and Augie’s Quest.
—Michael Parrish (San Jose, CA)

© 2010 DriftwoodMagazine.com, All rights reserved.

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